On one of the coldest Monday evenings of the winter, entering the parish hall at St Paul’s Wood Green, host to a winter night shelter, all is quiet and empty. Soon after 6pm, an army of helpers arrives and the hive of activity begins.
Joining the first shift who prepare the hall for the guests are the parish Confirmation group, who bring a youthful energy as they set to preparing the sleeping and dining areas for the 12 guests expected that evening. Going against the stereotype of the lethargic teenager, these young people cheerfully get busy with preparing individual sleeping spaces, inflating the air mattresses, dressing them with bed linen and creating an inviting space for each guest to occupy for the night. They work together and with the adult volunteers in teams, seemingly enjoying the work and finding in it a sense of purpose.
The place is bustling with activity, as other volunteers arrive to help set the tables and prepare the evening meal. The air soon fills with the sounds of laughter and the delicious aromas of the evening’s meal. The cooking team have arrived and are preparing the dinner they had cooked earlier.
‘We make sure each guest has a hearty three-course meal,’ explains Fr Perry Sykes. ‘The ladies of the cooking team provide a starter of soup or salad, a choice of a meat or vegetarian dish for the main, and a delicious dessert.’
Peering into the kitchen, it seems that the ladies have prepared a roast chicken dinner with potatoes and vegetables, and a ratatouille for a vegetarian option. Such is their concern that all have plenty to eat that one of them had gone out to the shops to purchase extra carrots.
Meanwhile, as the preparations in the hall continue, Fr Perry, along with Melissa Cardoso who acts as volunteer coordinator, are making sure there is adequate space for each guest and that the partitions placed between the beds offer enough privacy.
Melissa explains, ‘Since becoming involved with the night shelter, I have come to know a lot of people in the parish. Now, I’m likely to be at the back of church chatting with fellow parishioners for a good hour after Mass is over on Sunday.’
Around 120 parishioners take their turn on a rota each week to help provide a night’s respite from the cold for 12 homeless guests. Working with the charity All People All Places, St Paul’s is one of the locations that take it in turn to provide a night’s shelter and hospitality.
The response from the parish has been so tremendous that the group have taken over another night from another group which was struggling to cope, thus ensuring the shelter could continue for three more weeks.
As the preparations for the evening near completion, the set up team is replaced with the next shift of helpers who have come to welcome the guests. They stay to share a meal with them and to provide company for the evening. Parishioners John and Sheila have arrived with a guitar, in anticipation of a sing-a-long.
However, before the guests arrive and any of the evening’s entertainment begins, the group gathers round with Fr Perry to share a moment of prayer and recollection, placing their work in the Lord’s hands.
Reflecting on Mother Teresa’s advice to her sisters to hold each person for whom they were caring with the same reverence as the priest holds the Eucharist during Mass, Fr Perry says, ‘Tonight let us remember to hold each of our guests with the same reverence, because they too are the Body of Christ in our midst.’
Several of the volunteers note how this participation in the shelter has enriched their lives and the life of the parish. John explains, ‘We meet a wonderful variety of people who come to the shelter, each one with an interesting story to share. It’s such a privilege to share this time with them during the evening.’
As the guests arrive, they are invited to enjoy a meal with the volunteer hosts. Later in the evening, this shift is replaced by four volunteers who will stay with the guests through the night. A table is set with pastries, fruit and soft drinks to ensure there are plenty of snacks through the late evening and night for the guests.
In the morning, another shift of volunteers arrives to prepare and serve breakfast to the guests, ensuring they have a nourishing meal to carry on for the day. Later in the morning, a cleaning team will arrive to clean the parish hall and make it ready for other groups to use, and a laundry team will take away all the bed linens and towels to wash and prepare for the following week.
Fr Perry explains that, such is the parish’s commitment to the care of their guests, they have chosen to use some of the funds from Growing in Faith to build a shower facility as one of thier Parish projects.
Melissa echoes this sense: ‘Being involved with the shelter has brought us closer together as a parish. It has helped us to build an even stronger bond as a community. Last time, after the last week of the shelter, many of the volunteers missed the weekly involvement.’
Adds Fr Perry: ‘As a result we take the opportunity to join together as a group to share a meal in this same space. It’s wonderful to see so many people coming together with a shared purpose enjoying a meal and time of friendship.’
Word is also spreading around the diocese as other parishes who are thinking of joining a winter night shelter scheme in their area come to visit and learn from the experience at St Paul’s. Although they may visit to learn about the tasks involved in hosting a night shelter, doubtless they leave impressed with the sense of joy that seems to fill everyone who enters this warm and inviting parish.